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AstraZeneca Working with Eolas Therapeutics on Anti-Addiction Drug

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 19:11

Eolas Therapeutics, a Carlsbad, CA-based startup developing new drugs for treating addiction, said it has signed a global licensing and partnership agreement with AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN) to advance development of its experimental drug, designed to block a neuropeptide associated with addiction to nicotine and stimulants such as cocaine, opiates, and alcohol.

Details concerning the deal were not disclosed in a statement today, although Eolas says potential revenue could eventually exceed $145 million, including upfront and milestone payments, as well as royalties from future commercial sales. Founded in 2012, the company is unrelated to Tyler, TX-based Eolas, a bioinformatics company.

Eolas Therapeutics says it received a Blueprint Neurotherapeutics (BPN) grant from the National Institutes of Health to advance its lead drug candidate, an orexin-1 receptor antagonist for smoking cessation (and for treating other addictions) from the preclinical stage through early clinical trials.

The company says it is the first BPN development program to move from concept to commercial licensing. “Our two companies share a vision for greatly improving the lives of patients affected by addiction and other neurological disorders,” said Albert Man, the founder and CEO of Eolas Therapeutics.

“The goal of the BPN is to speed the practical application of promising neuroscience projects by supporting early-stage research that will attract industry support,” said Rajesh Ranganathan, an NIH director overseeing the BPN program for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, in the company’s statement. The Eolas-AstraZeneca deal “shows that the BPN strategy is working and that combining the strengths and capabilities of industry and academia can accelerate research,” Ranganathan said.

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Five Obstacles That Impede Startup Innovation

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 10:17

If you’re building a startup, chances are that you’re aspiring to innovate – to create something new or do something differently. In fact, innovation and entrepreneurship go hand in hand. However, many startups unwittingly create obstacles that hamper innovation in their organization. What are some of those obstacles and how can you avoid them?

Fear of Risk-Taking

When Elon Musk put his last $35 million into the financially strained Tesla, did he know that the company would soon be worth $25 billion? Or when Steve Jobs attempted to enter the tablet market – something that many companies before him had tried, but failed – did he know that Apple would soon become the top tablet vendor in the world?

Perhaps not, but the point is that both entrepreneurs took big risks. And that’s what matters. Many startups, afraid of risks, lose out on critical opportunities for innovation and growth. A fear of failure can often be innovation’s greatest enemy, especially in today’s fast-changing world.

So, instead of avoiding risk, foster a culture of calculated risk taking. Encourage your workforce to think through each risk scenario carefully, gather as much data as possible, evaluate the odds of success – and failure — and then determine if a risk is worth taking.

Another best practice is to share successes and failures as learning opportunities across the organization. This is a great way for people to become more aware of how to successfully mitigate risks, and manage uncertainty. It also raises awareness that failures are accepted and part of the journey to success.

Finally, support your workforce as they experiment, and learn – sometimes by trial and error – and perfect the art of smart risk taking. When people are not afraid to fail, that’s when innovation will flourish.

Poor Governance

Innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. If innovation isn’t aligned and embedded within your business objectives and budgets, and if there isn’t clear accountability for innovation-related decisions, then things can get chaotic. That’s why governance is critical for innovation to succeed. Governance involves implementing appropriate guardrails that allow innovation to flourish without going overboard.  It’s about having a framework with clear roles and responsibilities, while also encouraging autonomy.

So, what can you do to effectively govern innovation? Emeritus Professor Jean-Philippe Deschamps wrote an insightful piece, “What is Innovation Governance?” in which he lists out six fundamental questions that companies should address:

1. Why do you want to innovate?

2. Where should you focus your innovation?

3. How much innovation should you target?

4. How can you innovate more effectively?

5. With whom should you innovate?

6. Who should be responsible for what in innovation?

Thinking through these questions carefully can help you define a clear framework to guide innovation, and ensure that it actually contributes to the bottom line.

Weak Organizational Culture

Many startups think that initially, at least, culture doesn’t matter. But that’s not true. Whether you’re aware of it or not, your organization has a culture right from Day 1. The question is – how conducive is it to innovation? Are people inspired to be creative and productive? Are they willing to try new approaches and ideas? Or are they afraid to take new risks?

Cultivating a culture that encourages innovation is no easy feat. It takes time and effort, and must begin at the top. When your leaders … Next Page »

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Milestones of Innovation 9: Early Bird On Station

Mon, 06/29/2015 - 18:33

Fifty years ago, on June 28, 1965, an exotic device named Early Bird made it possible to transmit an uninterrupted live television show across the Atlantic from Europe to America or vice versa. This event, a landmark on the way to today’s interconnected world, happened less than 40 years after the first radio-telephone conversations between New York and London, less than 10 years after the first sub-ocean telephone cable went into service, and less than eight years after the Russians put up the first orbiting satellite.

Early Bird was a microwave relay station, not on a nearby hillside but instead orbiting 22,300 miles above the Equator. It belonged to a global communications satellite network called Intelsat. The first of Intelsat’s vast network of operational microwave relay stations, it was shaped like a hatbox, weighed 36 pounds, and was covered with power-generating solar cells. Spinning at about 60 revolutions a minute, Early Bird was keeping its antennas pointed stably at antennas below.

Designed by Hughes Aircraft in California, Early Bird had gone up April 6, 1965, on a multi-stage rocket toward its assigned position, about 28 degrees longitude west of Greenwich, between Brazil and Africa. Early Bird appeared to hover there, because, at that altitude, it was orbiting the earth at 1,000 miles an hour—just the speed at which Planet Earth turns eastward on its axis. Early Bird was thus in “geosynchronous” orbit.

Today, dozens of far-bigger, higher-volume geostationary comsats are doing similar duty above the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. For Intelsat and a host of other national and international owners, the craft are relaying fat streams of data to and from numerous big antennas on the ground. They also are sending high-frequency signals directly down to small dishes on millions of homes. Together with a web of optical fiber cables stretched across the oceans’ floors, the satellites assure an incredibly wide river of communications across our planet. New generations of both cables and satellites are put in place frequently, to replace obsolete equipment or boost capacity and reliability.

Like so many marvels of an age of innovation, the descendants of Early Bird exist because somebody once concluded that they were unlikely to be practical. Given human nature, that prediction in the late 1950s promptly drew the combative response: “Sez who?”

Two very creative spirits at Bell Telephone Laboratories, John R. Pierce (who coined the word, “transistor”) and Rudolf Kompfner (a later winner of the U.S. National Medal of Science), invented a device called the traveling wave tube for boosting microwave signals. For a prestigious electronics journal, Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers (March 1959), Pierce speculated about the optimal design for communications relays in space. He knew that one place to put such relays was in geosynchronous orbit. Indeed, back in 1945, in a magazine called Wireless World, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke had imagined a geosynchronous weather station manned by humans.

But Pierce not only was concerned that the traveling wave tube would burn out fairly quickly but also doubted that you could stabilize the craft. Repair missions out to 22,300 miles above the equator could get very expensive. So Pierce suggested instead a swarm of more easily replaced satellites in low Earth orbits. Bell Labs was convinced enough by this reasoning that it developed and built the Telstar comsat that was put into orbit on July 10, 1962. Orbiting the earth approximately every two and a half hours, Telstar could relay about 30 minutes of television between big dish antennas in Brittany and Maine. So images of John Kennedy and a singing Yves Montand could leap the Atlantic.

None of this went down well at Hughes Aircraft. This leading innovator in electronics, aviation, and space was losing some lucrative defense contacts, including one for the F-108 interceptor. According to Hughes engineer Harold Rosen (born in 1926), the company needed a significant new product. In a 1973 interview in The New York Times, Rosen recalled, “We were just generally looking for any other way to apply our technology. Among other things, we specialized in lightweight transmitters and relays and antennas.” He read the Pierce article as the shock of Sputnik reshaped American technical thinking, and began talking to others at Hughes. One of them, John Mendel, had worked on heavy versions of the traveling wave tube at Bell Labs. Now, Mendel had an idea for making it so much lighter that it could fit into the 50-pound limit on a payload a rocket could carry out to 22,300 miles.

There was a second weight-related problem. The required small payload couldn’t just let its antennas put out signals in all directions. It had to be pointed precisely down to ground stations. How to do this? Maybe the craft could be kept from wobbling and tumbling by spinning it steadily, with its spin-axis perpendicular to its orbital path. Rosen’s genius associate Don Williams “elegantly” worked out all the orbital mechanics.

The company put up an initial $300,000 in seed money and spent a lot more trying to sell the concept to major agencies in Washington. The Defense Department, with its own synchronous orbit comsat project called Advent, said no at first. But Advent flopped, and so NASA stepped in and hired Hughes to develop a substitute.

Rosen and his colleagues pushed ahead to an experimental model called Syncom in 1963. Syncom 1 blew up as it sped out into space, but, a few months later, Syncom 2 took up a station over the Atlantic and President Kennedy could use it to converse with Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the prime minister of recently independent Nigeria.

Deeply respected, imaginative experts at Bell Labs, perhaps the most fruitful industrial laboratory that ever existed, had said it couldn’t be done. But it could.

[Editor’s Note: This is the ninth of a series of notes about major anniversaries in innovation and what they teach us. You’re invited to suggest other milestones of innovation for the Xconomy Forum. Example: This year will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1965 electricity blackout across the Northeast.]

Further Reading:

Victor K. McElheny, New York Times, Aug. 27, 1973

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Out of the Digital Health Fog, More Investments Are Coming in 2015

Mon, 06/29/2015 - 02:45

Venture capitalists have been talking up the rewards of digital health for some time now, and we are certainly putting our money where our mouth is. Record-breaking dollars continue to flow into health care IT startups. According to Rock Health, digital health saw over $4B in funding in 2014, more than doubling funding from 2013 and matching the total of the previous three years combined.

For outsiders looking in, the digital health space might seem like an ill-defined universe, promising but bewildering. This year, however, I am encouraged by some changes happening that bolster near-term investment opportunities and make the value to patients more readily apparent.

There are also two crucial pillars now in place to help new investments in digital health products and services flourish in whatever form they might take, from consumer-friendly mobile apps for wellness; to services that help both employers and self-insured people pay health bills and manage benefits; to “big data” population health analytics.

The first pillar is an infrastructure that has been established to hold, dispense, communicate and use heath care information. There is more than 83% penetration of electronic medical records (EMRs) in physician offices, according to a 2014 Medscape survey, as well as the ubiquitous use of smart phones by both patients and physicians.

The second pillar is the ready availability of seed money from angel groups such as Health Tech Angels and incubators such as Rock Health. That seed cash is important because digital health development is more akin to tech. It doesn’t require nearly the same rocket fuel at launch as biopharma or device startups, although go-to-market ventures do in fact require large sums of funding.

With this backdrop in place, what’s next to provide value to the health care system in terms of better patient outcomes and reduced costs? I’m particularly interested in the convergence of technologies that have the potential to help insurers, pharma companies and health providers turn real-world, clinically meaningful data into valuable products.

(Fair warning: I’m going to give examples from Canaan’s portfolio. I’m biased, of course, but these are the companies I know extremely well.)

One example of technology convergence is Chrono Therapeutics, one of our investments. Drug companies want to move “beyond the pill,” which means finding ways to help patients take their medicines more consistently—what we call “compliance”—and to derive more clinical benefit from existing products. Chrono is exploiting digital health technologies to change up the tired category of nicotine patches for smoking cessation. Chrono is developing a new drug delivery device for the timed delivery of nicotine to reduce cravings. The device also communicates with a digital “back end” channel to coach the patient through a mobile app.

Is Chrono’s device a medical wearable, a disease management tool, a novel drug delivery technology, or a self-care app? I would argue that it checks all those boxes, and I anticipate that in the near future, many more innovators will start to look like Chrono.

It’s part of a larger trend of drug companies grappling with where to fit into the new digital health world. Where do drugs and apps intersect? Another company, not part of Canaan’s portfolio, working to marry digital therapeutic tools with a pill is Pear Therapeutics.

I’ll give you another case where the convergence of technologies is particularly promising: the race to provide physicians more help with decision making in patient care. I like to cite the AMA’s survey on professional satisfaction, which indicates doctors yearn for more, not less, interaction with patients. What better way to deliver care than to give physicians tools that allow for more patient interaction without increasing their workload?

Doctors are hit from all sides with what might be so-called “actionable” data: from diagnostic lab results, to sophisticated clinical algorithms in oncology, to a dashboard that monitors patient compliance with drug regimens between visits.

All these data flying at doctors call for better collection and consolidation, especially when the data are … Next Page »

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West Coast Biotech Roundup: Bock, Celladon, Arivale, Conkwest & More

Fri, 06/26/2015 - 15:45

It was a big week across the nation for Xconomy’s biotech coverage. We launched Exome, a redesigned site with more stories, livelier graphics, and other features to give readers a more comprehensive snapshot of the day’s health, biotech, and life sciences news. We’ve had great feedback from readers so far; please keep it coming. If you promise you’re not a spambot, you can email me at alash at xconomy, or you can send a tweet to @alexlash.

One West Coast highlight of our launch week coverage was a profile of a San Diego biotech investor, Larry Bock, by Xconomy San Diego editor Bruce Bigelow. Up in Seattle, the Institute for Systems Biology spun out a new kind of health company called Arivale. And LA biotech billionaire (and part Laker owner) Patrick Soon-Shiong is steering one of his conglomerate’s companies, Conkwest, toward a potentially massive IPO. Let’s get to the roundup.

—San Diego gene therapy developer Celladon (NASDAQ: CLDN) continued its descent, confirming it would end its R&D programs and look for a buyer, or perhaps be forced to liquidate. The white flag comes two months after its cardiovascular treatment Mydicar crashed in a Phase 2b trial.

—Xconomy San Diego Editor Bruce Bigelow profiled Larry Bock, who is one of San Diego’ most successful life sciences investors, and who has been legally blind for the past 36 years. Bock has joined forces with a couple of San Diego entrepreneurs to form, an online startup developing new visual services for the blind.

—I reported last Friday the news of Arivale’s imminent launch. The wellness startup is based on the early work of the ISB’s 100K Wellness Project, which aims to build comprehensive health profiles of its volunteers with the help of the latest technology. Arivale will be a for-profit version, and the Seattle tech site Geekwire had a comprehensive report from the company’s launch party Monday.

—Patrick Soon-Shiong, who developed and sold cancer companies such as Abraxis Biosciences for billions of dollars, is using his wealth to build a sprawling biotech and health conglomerate. One piece of it, an immunotherapy company called Conkwest, filed paperwork to go public, setting an early goal of raising $172.5 million.

—San Diego startup Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics said it received half of a planned $17 million Series A round led by Avalon Ventures. Germany’s Heraeus Medical and San Diego’s Correlation Ventures also participated. The company has been developing WNT3A, a growth factor to stimulate stem cells, in bone and tissue repair applications.

—Kite Pharma (NASDAQ: KITE) of Santa Monica, CA, partnered with Cambridge, MA-based Bluebird Bio (NASDAQ: BLUE) to combine Bluebird’s gene therapy and gene editing technologies with Kite’s cellular immunotherapy techniques. The goal is to develop therapies for human papillomavirus-associated cancers.

—San Diego-based Ambrx, which has been developing a line of protein therapeutics that includes antibody-drug conjugates, said it recently closed a merger with a Chinese consortium with ties to the Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group, HOPU Investments, China Everbright’s healthcare fund, and WuXi PharmaTech. Ambrx said it now has resources to advance its pipeline at its U.S. research center and build a new global product development center in China.

—San Diego real estate developer Conrad Prebys gave $100 million to the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, which renamed itself the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute. The donation will enable the institute to advance its laboratory discoveries and clinic-ready drug candidates.

—Drug maker Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) said it would move 40 jobs from Seattle as part of a nationwide R&D reshuffle.

—San Diego-based Organovo Holdings (NYSE: ONVO) plans to raise more than $40 million by selling 9.4 million shares. The company granted underwriters a 30-day option to buy an additional 1.4 million shares.

—EY, the accounting and services firm previously known as Ernst & Young, named Rich Heyman, the CEO of both Seragon Pharmaceuticals and Aragon Pharmaceuticals, the San Diego 2015 EY Entrepreneur of the Year in biotechnology and technology. National winners will be announced Nov. 14 at EY’s annual awards gala in Palm Springs, CA.

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How Your Startup Can Run With Unicorns

Fri, 06/26/2015 - 12:22

Have you noticed those unicorns outside your office? Recently, there’s been an uptick in the all-important $1 billion “unicorn” valuation for startups in the tech industry. In the VC-funded startup community, the young companies receiving such valuations are in the media daily.

When an entrepreneur considers her unicorn counterparts, it’s not hard to see why she might start looking for majestic horns at the head of her own business. However, it’s important to remember that the factors that make for a successful startup business do not necessarily include a glitzy price tag. Like the more common (but seriously impressive) racehorse, promising startups can predict their competitiveness based on other factors: pedigree, support from trainers and jockeys, physical strength, and the hunger to run – fast.

Here’s the thing about billion-dollar valuations: they’re heavily based on the success of comparable companies and investors’ desires to make money. Unicorn-like dollar signs can keep other startups out of the company’s space and raise enough eyebrows to keep industry value on the rise. The people responding to these valuations are a major motivating factor behind the lofty assessments in the first place; big numbers, like big horns, impress the right people, but they shouldn’t distract entrepreneurs from valuing the other metrics that are as relevant in today’s landscape as they have always been.

Public markets have shifted heavily in the last decade. For many reasons, the days where an IPO was the only sign that a young company was ready to shift into being a dependable, viable player in its industry are gone. Now, to send the message to employees, customers, and investors, many companies are expanding their reach and generating the same buzz by projecting the vote of confidence that comes with getting a massive valuation. With substantial capital at hand, as well as the credibility of being a unicorn, it is possible for an emerging business to go through its early growth years entirely as a private player.

More notably, because of these factors, many of the companies hailed as unicorn startups shouldn’t be considered startups in the first place. Several have been around for some time; they’re private companies that became larger, more substantial businesses. Instead of going public, as was the trend 10 or 15 years ago, these organizations opted to remain private to keep building that value. There’s no reason for other entrepreneurs not to look at the “unicorn” list and take some lessons from the men and women that gradually created these companies and stewarded them to their current value. Their valuations aren’t signs that the unicorn label is essential, though.

Startups need to keep their sights set on the same things they always have to keep their value on the rise. The combination of a well-crafted team, a sustainable business model, and a product that appeals to a wide audience has changed the market in the past, and it will do so many times in the future. Business fundamentals don’t change, regardless of what the market does with valuations. It’s easy to forget this when yet another startup reaches unicorn status. We’re all enthralled by magical creatures, but in a field dotted with unicorns, startup thoroughbreds can also keep pace – and win.

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Library High: San Francisco Public Library Offers Online Diploma With Cengage

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 22:17

[Corrected 6/26/15, 9:32 am. See below.] Educational technology is often cast as a solution to the high cost of a college degree, which Americans see as the essential gateway to reasonable earnings. But in San Francisco, which has one of the most highly educated populations in the country, more than 30,000 people over 25 lack even a high school diploma.

The San Francisco Public Library is going to try to change that with the help of technology, the system announced today. Starting in August, pre-qualified adults will be able to sign up free through the library for the Career Online High School, a program offered by Gale, the library resources division of Boston-based edtech company Cengage Learning.

Graduates earn an accredited high school diploma by completing 18 credits in the traditional subjects—English, math, social studies, and science. But they also sign up for coursework in one of eight career fields, which include office management, child care and education, transportation, and retail customer service.

“Being able to offer Career Online High School helps us achieve our goal of rethinking adult literacy in the 21st century in a profound and impactful way,” City Librarian Luis Herrera said in a statement announcing the San Francisco library’s new education program. “For SFPL, the Career Online High School initiative redefines the role of the library as the place for personal growth and learning for individuals most in need.”

Some employers also work with Cengage to offer their workers the chance to earn a career-oriented high school diploma: they include Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Walmart. The library-based program has been adopted by systems in Denver, Phoenix, New Jersey, and other states. [An earlier version of this story stated that employers work with Gale. We regret the error.]

San Francisco is the latest California library system to launch the online high school program. Los Angeles was the first, in 2014, followed by the library systems in San Diego and Sacramento. (Sacramento student and working father Mario Rideaux is pictured above.)

Since Gale started signing up libraries last year, about 450 students have begun the self-paced program, 130 students are halfway through to completion, and about 30 students have graduated, the company says.

Adults whose libraries don’t participate can sign up directly through the Career Online High School site, but the program costs $1,295, or $77 a month if paid in installments. Students can take up to 18 months to finish, but many will be able to graduate faster—in as little as four to six months. They can transfer in as many as 14 credits they’re already earned toward a diploma. The students are supported by paid academic coaches. [An earlier version of this story gave a different sign-up location. We regret the error.]

So far, the San Francisco Public Library has purchased 100 scholarships for Career Online High School, so the diploma program is free to residents who pass a pre-registration enrollment course, a Cengage spokeswoman says.

Libraries help low-income learners clear another educational hurdle by making computers and technical support available for those who don’t have their own computers at home.

Cengage’s largest revenue stream comes from products for higher education, such as its MindTap learning platform, which is used at the University of California at Davis, San Francisco State University, San Jose State University, the City College of San Francisco, and other California institutions.

The global company operates a major branch at San Francisco’s Mission Bay with 300 employees—not far behind the staff count at its Boston headquarters. The San Francisco unit is primarily devoted to higher education projects.

Photo of Mario Rideaux and Susan Bloom courtesy of Sacramento Public Library.

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San Diego’s Ambrx Names New CEO, CSO

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 20:44

San Diego-based Ambrx, Inc., a clinical stage biotechnology company developing optimized protein therapeutics known as bio-conjugates, named Dr. Tiecheng (Alex) Qiao as CEO. He was previously a partner at Coentre, a private angel investment firm. Ambrx also named Dr. Feng Tian, formerly vice president of science and technology, China, chief science officer, a newly-created position.

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San Diego Developer/Philanthropist Gives $100M to Sanford-Burnham

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 15:48

The San Diego-based Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, which also operates in Orlando, FL, has been renamed the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute following a $100 million gift from the developer and philanthropist Conrad Prebys.

Prebys, a real estate developer and owner of San Diego-based Progress Construction and Management, was identified as one of America’s top donors earlier this year in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The Prebys donation follows an anonymous $275 million pledge made in early 2014, and gets the institute to three-fourths of its $500 million goal in just the second year of a 10-year fundraising campaign. In a statement yesterday, the institute says the $100 million gift will be used to help fulfill elements of the 10-year strategic plan adopted last year. The plan establishes a new research model that encourages innovation by aligning biomedical research and translational research with commercial drug discovery and development.

The donation “enables us to conduct translational research to advance laboratory discoveries and clinic-ready drug candidates further along the development pipeline,” CEO Perry Nisen said, according to the statement. “We are profoundly grateful to Conrad Prebys for this extraordinary gift.”

“We are in the golden age of biology, where advances in molecular biology, robotics, imaging, and many other technologies allow us to ask and answer previously impossible questions,” institute president Kristiina Vuori said. “Now more than ever, we have the capacity to speed up the process of moving medical research discoveries from bench to bedside.”

The institute has an annual operating budget of about $152 million and ranks among the top U.S. research centers for National Institutes of Health grants. As I reported last August, federal research grant funding provides more than half of the institute’s operating budget. State support accounts for 17 percent, while philanthropy amounts to about 13 percent. Funding from licensing, other grants, and other revenue sources makes up the remaining 14 percent.

The institute also has established strategic partnerships with such big pharmaceutical companies as Takeda, Pfizer, and Janssen Pharmaceuticals to carry out pre-clinical research to validate prospective drug candidates. The institute plans to establish more pharma and clinical partnerships to advance translational research discoveries.

Prebys previously donated a total of $11 million to the institute, including $10 million in 2009 to support the Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics. The institute said his latest gift would “help build sustainability for research and development” and further the institute’s core research and development efforts in cancer, neuroscience, immunity, and metabolic disorders.

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Connect Charts Signs of Expansion in San Diego’s Innovation Economy

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 04:15

A record 446 technology and life sciences startups were founded in San Diego in 2014, according to the latest innovation report released by Connect, the nonprofit group that supports regional innovation and entrepreneurship.

The number was slightly higher than the 426 companies that Connect counted in 2013, and represents a new high in the number of new San Diego startups since Connect began tracking the formation of new companies 10 years ago. It is one of many signs of a continuing expansion in San Diego’s innovation sector, Connect CEO Greg McKee said during a press briefing yesterday.

Greg McKee

The Connect Innovation Report is intended to provide a comprehensive overview of San Diego’s innovation economy by assembling data from a variety of sources, including local patent filings, employment figures, and federal research funding. It takes months to prepare, and while some data were previously reported (such as 2014 venture funding), Connect is the only local organization tracking startup creation, according to Steve Hoey, who oversees Connect’s work on the report.

One surprise in the 2014 report is that the startup total included 248 software companies—or nearly 56 percent of the 446 innovative companies founded in the region. That’s unexpected because the life sciences sector drives most of the innovation deals in San Diego. For example:

—Biotech companies got 62 percent of the $805 million that venture firms invested in the San Diego region in 2014 (or almost $500 million). The second-biggest category for VC investments in San Diego was software, which got 13 percent, or close to $105 million in venture investments. Medical devices and equipment ranked third, with 6 percent, or slightly more than $48 million.

—Seven San Diego biotech companies raised a total of $416 million through initial public offerings. They accounted for all of the San Diego IPOs in 2014, according to the report.

—Of the 10 biggest M&A deals in 2014 (in which either the buyer or acquired company was based in San Diego), seven were life sciences deals and accounted for 75 percent ($19.2 billion) of the $25.4 billion in total deal valuation. The total valuation of all San Diego M&A deals in 2014 amounted to $27 billion—a 40 percent increase from 2013.

Even so, Connect’s McKee said San Diego is seeing more startup activity outside the life sciences industry. “In terms of a big whack at what we’re doing, we’re known for our life science sector in San Diego, but there are a huge number of non-life science companies here,” McKee said.

In his overview of San Diego’s ecosystem, McKee said the Connect report counted 7,000 innovation companies in 2014—with software companies representing about 32 percent of the total. Technical consulting services ranked as the second-largest sector, with 31 percent, and communications equipment manufacturing was third, with 12 percent. Pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device companies accounted for 10 percent of the total.

San Diego’s innovation ecosystem added about 4,500 jobs in 2014, bringing total employment in the local innovation economy to 147,900. The average annual salary in the innovation sector was $115,010 last year, or more than 2.4 times the average San Diego salary of $48,650.

Of the 147,900 innovation jobs in San Diego last year, nearly 34,000 (almost 23 percent) were in the pharmaceutical, biotech, and biomedical sectors. More than 29,000 (nearly 20 percent) were in software, about 28,000 (19 percent) were in communications equipment manufacturing, and almost 24,000 (16 percent) were in defense and transportation.

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The Decade Of The Brain: 25 Years Later

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 04:00

My phone rang late in the day on a pleasant fall afternoon.  It was a close friend and business associate of mine and, because we talk often enough about a whole variety of things, I didn’t think for a moment about not answering. I rarely talk about my days as a practicing physician, and it’s been a number of years since I last practiced. So although many people know that I am a critical care anesthesiologist, only a few colleagues and friends in my new world of biopharma (I work for The Medicines Co.) ever do the curbside consult thing with me—they just don’t know me in that way.

But the person calling me was one of the few who did know me in that way, and he also knew that despite the new career, I still fielded calls every now and then for medical advice or guidance. I will admit that I had a brief flash of awareness about this before I answered, not enough to make me ignore the call. So even though I was packing up my things, I answered. Immediately I heard him say, absent any pleasantries or greeting: “Hey J, I am sorry to bother you, but I need some help; my grandmother has had a massive stroke.”  I told him to give me all the details.

The details are not what this post is about. All I will say about my friend and his grandmother are some specifics about what ailed her: she suffered a severe acute ischemic stroke that had undergone a hemorrhagic conversion and she was non-responsive. In plain English: She had a stroke, the dead tissue started to bleed, and the stroke was evolving in such a way that more blood was appearing and large swaths of her brain were dead, dying, or at risk of dying. To put even a more human touch to this, the parts of brain that made that woman who she was were in danger of injury or had already been injured; little by little, “she” was disappearing.

When you lose a liver cell, a kidney cell, or even many heart cells, life generally goes on largely unchanged, and you may never really know it happened. You lose a bunch of neurons (a type of brain cell), however, and you may end up losing the name of your daughter, the face of your husband, or your ability to walk, talk, or remember. And all of this was happening in 2014. “So what?” you may ask. What’s so special about 2014?

In 1989, then-President George H.W. Bush pronounced the 1990s to be the “Decade of the Brain.” That was supposed to be the initiative whereby in 10 years time, we would have unraveled consciousness, got a choke hold on things like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and of course, finally put the pesky little issue of stroke and grandmothers and mothers and fathers and sisters and all the rest losing large pieces of who they were and what they liked.

Needless to say, this did not pan out they way that President Bush, the National Institutes of Health, and everyone else had hoped. Did we make progress? Yes, we did. Did we uncover some good science? Again, yes, we did. Did we finish what we started? No, we did not. Which brings me back to this story, and this blog post.

The next morning, it just so happened that I read that another super-cool immuno-oncology company had just had a wonderfully successful initial public offering. Tens of millions of dollars (many tens actually) were raised, and the excitement around the new generation of oncology drugs and science continued to grow.

So there it was. On one hand, we had the “Hot New Next Big Thing,” and all of its future potential and possibility. On the other hand, we had the “Decade of the Brain” 25 years later, offering a glimpse of what all of the excitement might look like many years later after all the buzz dies down. My friend’s grandmother should have been getting all kinds of special ‘new’ drugs, or care options, or something. That was the promise implicit in that NIH initiative. But, what actually transpired, as opposed to all of the promise and potential and excitement, was not even close to being as cool, exciting, and meaningful as I had hoped back in grad school in 1991 when I was getting a PhD in neuroscience. Lots of people still die from stroke, or get Alzheimer’s, and we still haven’t really fixed these things or even begun to understand what consciousness is.

So in 2015, we can look back over the past three years and see over 130 biotech IPOs—most a result of some combination of really good basic science, savvy and brave investors, interesting and exciting clinical (or even just preclinical) data, and of course, great timing. My friend’s terrible misfortune showed very plainly that perhaps we’ve been here before. We should tread carefully, because this is just the beginning of a long journey, which will almost certainly take all sorts of detours, encounter all types of problems, and will almost certainly turn out differently that we expect. Not necessarily worse than we expect, just different. I read a great article on a tech blog recently that is so appropriate here. The author riffed about how in the 1970s we thought the future, 25 to 50 years later, would be full of flying cars and moon bases—and instead we got the iPhone and Fitbit.

The point is that the future is rarely what you think, or hope it will be (just in case the stroke story didn’t already make that point clearly enough). Similarly, back in 1995 when Science featured a cover showcasing the “Decade of the Brain,” I thought in 2015 we’d have stroke treatments which, like heart attack care today, allow people to essentially walk out of a hospital after a needle stick to their groin and wire to place a stent. Instead, we got CAR-T therapy (very cool) and CRISPR-CAS9 gene editing (way cool). None of this is bad! It’s just different—and maybe cautionary.

I am not in any position, nor am I brave enough, to comment intelligently on the timing, data, hype, promise, or anything else about the unnamed, yet very cool oncology company to which I’ve been referring. The phone call from my friend reminded me of something, though, that my 5 years in biopharma had almost made me forget. In the end, all of this—the returns for investors, the hype, the data in one patient, or ten patients and all the clinical trials that are breathlessly reported in the biotech press—is useless unless it ends up helping someone like my friend’s grandmother. Want to move the needle on something? Put “a dent in the universe” (as the over-referenced Steve Jobs once said)? Then by all means make new drugs, do great trials, explore cool science and found, build, and sell great companies.

But I have a suggestion as I ponder the “Decade of the Brain” and its grand predictions and goals which 25 years later turned out quite differently. Let’s keep score in a different way. Let’s mint a statistic on the number of people we help. Instead of tabulating the 130 IPOs in three years, or the quarterly funding levels for new companies, or the M&A activity in the sector, let’s report how many people were treated with all these new drugs, how many of those we helped, how many we may have hurt.  If we do this, we will undoubtedly encounter a day where something in those numbers makes us really smile. And, at that moment, we will know that whatever people say one day about the decade we are in right now, no one will ever be caught suggesting that we didn’t pay attention to what mattered most.

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GoFundMe Gets Undisclosed Funding Led by Accel Partners, TCV

Wed, 06/24/2015 - 15:46

GoFundMe, a San Diego-based crowdfunding startup, has sold a majority stake to an investor group led by Accel Partners and Technology Crossover Ventures, according to a report this morning on The Wall Street Journal’s website for tech news.

GoFundMe, which operates a website that enables individuals and charities to raise funds for tragedies and good causes, did not immediately respond to a query from Xconomy.

Hundreds of thousands of people have used GoFundMe to raise over $1.1 billion from 13 million donors for a host of charitable causes, according to the company.

For example, an account established to raise funds for the Irish students involved in a June 16 balcony collapse in Berkeley has raised more than $221,000 in just over a week. The collapse resulted in six fatalities and seven serious injuries.

According to the WSJ website, GoFundMe co-founders Brad Damphousse and Andy Ballester “are relinquishing control and reaping a fortune.” They founded GoFundMe in San Diego in 2010, and used the company’s revenue to fund its growth. GoFundMe charges 5 percent in fees per transaction, according to the WSJ website.

Accel venture partner Rob Solomon, a former Groupon COO and Yahoo executive, will be taking over as CEO. Solomon told the Journal he plans to establish a GoFundMe office in Silicon Valley.

GoFundMe revealed the deal without much detail in a June 18 blog entry that says the unspecified investment includes Greylock, Meritech Capital, and Stripes Group. According to the entry, “Their collective experience building global, world-class companies (like Airbnb, Facebook, Netflix, and Spotify) can help further elevate GoFundMe to its full potential, so that even more people can raise money online for the things that matter to them most.”

The deal, which is expected to close within two weeks, will value the San Diego company at around $600 million, according to the WSJ website.

Irish Students Berkeley Tragedy Fund (courtesy GoFundMe)

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Duke Long-Term Health Study Aims To Join Obama’s Precision Med Plan

Wed, 06/24/2015 - 09:54

The small North Carolina mill town of Kannapolis left its mark on the U.S. economy and history by becoming the nation’s largest center for textiles manufacturing. In its next chapter, Kannapolis could become part of medical history.

Duke University wants the medical research already underway at Kannapolis to become part of the federal Precision Medicine Initiative, a $215 million plan that President Obama announced earlier this year. By studying groups of people and tracking them over time—the federal initiative aims to form a national study group of 1 million people—the National Institutes of Health aims to improve understanding of disease and find new treatments.

Federal officials in charge of the idea have talked about stitching together many regional studies as well as recruiting new volunteers, but planning is still in the early stages. Duke is among the first to express interest in joining the effort.

The Kannapolis study is called the Measurement to Understand the Reclassification of Disease of Cabarrus/Kannapolis—the MURDOCK Study for short. Kristin Newby, the Duke cardiologist who leads the study, says Duke has submitted a MURDOCK patient group to the federal initiative, in response to an NIH request. Newby, who took over as principal investigator earlier this year after Robert Califf joined the FDA as its top regulator of medical products and tobacco, says that working with other longitudinal, or long-term, studies was always among the MURDOCK Study’s goals.

“We really want to encourage investigators far and wide to access the resource,” Newby says.

The MURDOCK acronym is a reference to the study’s benefactor, David H. Murdock, the owner and chairman of Westlake Village, CA-based Dole Foods. Murdock has spent some of his fortune restoring the economy of Kannapolis and surrounding Cabarrus County, where he keeps a home.

At its peak, the Cannon Mills facility in Kannapolis produced more towels and bedding than anywhere else in the United States. The site’s ultimate owner, the Pillowtex Corporation, shuttered the company in a 2003 bankruptcy. A year later, Murdock won an auction for the land of the former Pillowtex site.

Soon afterward, Murdock began laying out his vision of turning Kannapolis into a research hub.

The former Cannon Mills property still dominates the Kannapolis landscape, but new buildings there now house laboratories, not looms. The site is home to the North Carolina Research Campus, a 350-acre research park where universities and food companies pursue food research side by side. A total of nine academic institutions keep a presence on the campus. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Nutrition Institute is based there, as is North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute. Duke’s presence is the MURDOCK Study.

Murdock established the study in 2006 with a $35 million gift. Califf, then a Duke cardiologist, assembled the MURDOCK team from various disciplines. Newby was part of that early team; she says she has long had an interest in using statistics and analysis in medical treatment, specifically to help guide a physician’s choice of drug to treat a particular condition. Newby says she has made this approach to medicine part of her work since she began at Duke in the early 1990s.

“I’ve always been interested in how we can take advantage of the molecular underpinnings of disease to see who’s at risk and what treatments they might benefit from,” she says. “Of course, that was well before they called it precision medicine.”

Long-term precision medicine studies similar to MURDOCK are underway in other parts of the country. In Seattle, the Institute for Systems Biology last year launched the 100K Wellness Project, which aims to mine the data of up to 100,000 volunteers to find ways to diagnose, treat, and prevent disease. A spinout based on its premise launched this week. And in April, the California Initiative for Advancing Precision Medicine launched with the goal of studying patient data from the University of California’s vast health system and beyond.

All of these long-term—or longitudinal—studies, including MURDOCK, take their cue from the Framingham Heart Study. Originally started in 1948 with more than 5,000 women and men recruited from Framingham, MA, a town outside Boston, the study is now on its third generation of patients.

MURDOCK aims to enroll 50,000 volunteers, which represents about one third of Cabarrus County’s population. Enrollment currently stands at more than 11,500.

MURDOCK aims to surpass Framingham not just with more people enrolled, but with a wider range of diseases studied. Initially, the Kannapolis/Cabarrus research focused on liver disease, obesity, and osteoarthritis, as well as cardiovascular disease. Research has since expanded to include multiple sclerosis and prostate cancer. Newby says that MURDOCK is able to add more areas of research because of its biobank of patient information.

The biobank—technically a community registry and biorepository—stores samples of volunteers’ blood and urine, an idea that Newby implemented in 2009. It has the capacity to store up to 10 million samples and is operated by Burlington, NC-based laboratory and diagnostics company LabCorp (NYSE: LH).

With the storehouse of samples at hand, Newby and her colleagues can branch out into new diseases, or pursue new ideas, without necessarily recruiting new patients. Framingham started collecting biological samples years after its start, which limits the new research the study can do on data from its earliest volunteers. MURDOCK researchers have collected samples from the beginning. That means when an investigator proposes a new area of study, MURDOCK will already have an intact cohort with biological samples ready and waiting, Newby says.

Scientists from other institutions can apply for access to the MURDOCK data and biobank, which Duke believes can support … Next Page »

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Introducing Exome, Xconomy’s New Home For Biotech and Health Coverage

Wed, 06/24/2015 - 07:45

By now you’ve had a day or two to meet Exome, Xconomy’s new place for all things life sciences, health, and biotech, which launched Monday. Let me amend that. Some things are new, which I’ll get to in a moment, but some things remain the same: the reporting and analysis you expect from me, Ben Fidler, and Xconomy’s reporters on the ground in San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, San Diego, Raleigh/Durham, Wisconsin, Texas, and Colorado. Everything health-related you read Xconomy for will still be covered under the Exome roof: biotech deals and strategy, emerging biomedical science, digital health trends, and more.

But we decided it was time to spruce up the look of our life science coverage. We hope you like the design, with bigger photos, more prominent placement for our top stories and outside contributors, and other ways for you to take the temperature of the biotech world: A live Twitter feed, deals of the day, and news about people on the move (which you’ll find under the heading—surprise!—“People on the Move”).

The new design extends to our free daily Exome e-mail newsletter, which you can sign up for here. If you’re reading this in one of our other newsletters or an e-mail that someone sent, or perhaps these words are coming to you in a dream, and you haven’t yet visited Exome, please do so here—because of course your dreams have clickable links—and let us know what you think. We’re eager to get your feedback.

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U.S. IPO Activity Loses Steam to PE Deals in First Half of 2015

Tue, 06/23/2015 - 20:39

In the strange times category of today’s innovation news, a preview of IPO activity through the first half of 2015 suggests that market bubbles don’t always rise.

In fact, the total number of IPO deals and proceeds actually sank through the first half of 2015, with 101 IPOs raising total proceeds of $19.7 billion, according to the latest quarterly report on global IPO trends from EY, the accounting and consulting firm previously known as Ernst & Young.

That’s a 36 percent decrease in the number of deals and a 44 percent decline in gross proceeds from the first half of 2014, when EY counted 158 deals with a value of $35.4 billion. EY based its IPO activity report on data from Dealogic as of June 16, as well as expected IPOs through the end of June.

While healthcare IPOs continue to dominate (see below)—EY has counted 40 so far this year—technology IPOs have been lagging behind the 2014 pace. EY has counted only 15 tech IPOs in the first half of 2015, compared to 47 over the same period last year.

If you thought the IPO market was overheated, the shift in tech IPOs can be attributed to a continuing strong appetite among late-stage growth companies for private equity financings, according to Jackie Kelley, an EY partner, and global and Americas IPO markets leader.

Private financings have “significantly impacted the flow of IPOs this year, as companies have been able to remain private longer,” she says in a statement from EY. In other words, private equity financings are siphoning off many of the hottest IPO deals.

Renaissance Capital, the Greenwich, CT, firm that manages IPO exchange traded funds, has been tracking a similar downward trend.

As of late yesterday afternoon, the Renaissance Capital website reports that 86 IPOs have priced so far this year—a 36 percent decline from 147 IPO pricings in the first half of 2014. Renaissance Capital also counts a total of $15.8 billion in IPO proceeds so far this year, down by over 45 percent from the $31.5 billion raised in the same period last year.

Renaissance also reports that 129 IPOs have been filed so far this year, down just over 34 percent from the first half of 2014.

No overvalued market would be complete without a little fizz, however, and this week is shaping up to be the biggest week for IPOs in over a decade, with somewhere between 14 and 18 IPOs expected to price this week.

“IPOs may be down overall, but the momentum is picking up,” Renaissance Capital’s Kathleen Smith wrote in an e-mail to Xconomy. “We have a very heavy deal calendar between now and the end of June. So far in June we have had 17 IPOs and we think another 17 will get done before the end of the month. That would mean 34 deals get done in June—more than last year and possibly the busiest month since 2000.”

Smith added: “The IPO market is working because the fuel that powers the IPO issuance engine is aftermarket returns. The Renaissance IPO [exchange traded fund] (NYSE: IPO), a basket of already trading recent IPOs is outperforming the overall market [year-to-date] up almost 9 percent vs S&P up 3 percent. Also, note the follow through for recent IPOs Fitbit and Shopify.”

The list of impending IPOs includes two Cambridge, MA-based life sciences companies: Seres Therapeutics plans to raise about $100 million for its microbiome-based treatments. Catabasis Pharmaceuticals expects to raise total proceeds of roughly $60 million to advance its therapies for Duchenne muscular dystrophy and high cholesterol.

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Houston Dares to Challenge the Bicoastal Model of Biotech Growth

Tue, 06/23/2015 - 09:21

World-class universities, prominent medical institutions, a talented workforce, access to capital and favorable geography are critical factors required to stimulate and support a dynamic regional bioscience industry. Some might believe that these factors only converge along the coasts of New England and California, and many new and growing biotech companies may feel that they are not able to operate effectively in other regions.

While no one can argue the immense success of the bi-coastal biotech industry in Boston and San Francisco, Houston has seen strong growth in this sector and, for Opexa, Houston has been the perfect location to nurture medical innovation and the development of novel medical breakthroughs.

Houston provides easy access to world-class research institutions, including the Baylor College of Medicine where Opexa’s technology originated. The UT Health Science Center, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and the Texas Medical Center offer expertise equal to any biopharma development hub. Houston’s knowledge centers are a critical resource in allowing local biotech firms to incorporate the latest scientific developments into promising new therapies and diagnostics.

Capital generated from oil and gas exploration and development over the past several decades is being increasingly deployed in the healthcare sector. While the initial focus may have been to support and build one of the largest and best hospital systems in the world, we are seeing some of these efforts directed to the biotech sector, in part from a recognition of the value of diversification beyond energy.

From the early success of Tanox, founded more than 20 years ago (and acquired by Genentech in 2007), through the past decade of Opexa’s investments in medical innovation and the recent IPO of Bellicum Pharmaceuticals, we have witnessed the robust growth of Houston biotech. Numerous startup companies are being spun out from local academic centers, resulting in a dynamic entrepreneurial community.

Geography and a city’s infrastructure also play an important role in a company’s decision to put down roots. For Opexa, with our patient-specific therapies that follow each individual patient’s course of disease, Houston’s central location within the U.S. and its two international airports maximized our transportation options for shipments and for travel to clinical trial sites nationwide. The space available to situate our manufacturing facility together with our corporate headquarters has also provided us with numerous efficiencies and cost savings.

While late-stage biotech firms may be able to expand into expensive real estate in crowded urban areas, rapidly growing, early-stage companies that need to be resourceful may find that choosing a location with plenty of space is the better choice. In addition to the convenience of our location in The Woodlands, just north of Houston, the area’s high quality of life has helped Opexa successfully recruit the best employees, not only locally, but from across the United States—even from Boston and San Francisco.

Whether you are looking to start, to expand, or to join a biotech firm, think broadly about the location that will best position you for success. Attractive options exist beyond the two coasts and Houston is second to none.

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Welcome To The Sharing Economy. Cancer Researchers Are Next.

Tue, 06/23/2015 - 07:30

We’re sharing everything these days. Rides. Spare rooms. Pictures of things wrapped in bacon. Our thoughts, 24 hours a day. Next up: Cancer data?

It can’t come soon enough for Charles Sawyers. Sawyers is one of the world’s most decorated cancer researchers, and his long resumé includes crucial work that helped make imatinib (Gleevec) one of the first drugs approved to go after a cancer—in Gleevec’s case, chronic myeloid leukemia—that was driven by a specific genetic mutation.

While much of the biotech world was running around Philadelphia at the giant BIO convention last week, Sawyers was in Salt Lake City helping run a much smaller conference sponsored by the American Association for Cancer Research.

In his wrap-up keynote, he told his cancer research peers that they needed to break down the walls of their institutions and share the ever-greater volume of data coming from research labs, cancer clinics, and medical centers.

Linking hospitals and research centers via data networks isn’t the stuff of screaming headlines, but people like Sawyers say breakthroughs in care with price tags society can afford won’t come regularly without those data connections. So when I heard about what Sawyers and others were saying in Salt Lake last week, I got them on the phone to hear how much of this advocacy was just talk, and how much was leading to action.

After explaining the need for “a new culture where data sharing across institutions happens much more quickly and easily,” Sawyers said he has convinced his colleagues and the leadership at Memorial Sloan-Kettering to get on board. A big plan for extramural sharing is underway, he said, but he couldn’t discuss details except to say there will be a formal announcement in the fall.

One of those groups sharing with MSK could be Intermountain Healthcare, an integrated health provider and insurer based in Salt Lake City. Its director of cancer genomics, Lincoln Nadauld, told me Intermountain was in discussions with “several academic institutions and integrated delivery” groups to share patient outcomes data. “We don’t want to be exclusive,” he said.

A talk Nadauld gave at the conference illustrated why his organization needs to share. He told the audience that an examination of 72 of Intermountain’s cancer patients with advanced disease hinted that those receiving targeted therapies—the vanguard of personalized medicine—saw their cancers halted (called progression free survival, or PFS) for about twice as long as those receiving standards of care like chemotherapy. What’s more, Intermountain calculated that the personalized medicine care, which included notoriously expensive drugs, didn’t cost any more than the standard care.

“We finally have some data that shows across all cancer types this approach does appear to provide some benefit regarding survival,” said Nadauld. “We also thought that more expensive drugs would make the ‘targeted’ cohort more expensive. But the punch line is that we were able to improve PFS without increasing costs. Neither of those things have come out before.”

But there are big caveats. Not only were the sample sizes small—36 patients in each group—the patients were plucked from records retrospectively, which can expose studies even by the most well-meaning researchers to biases. Nadauld also cautioned that the study hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed.

To know whether Intermountain’s findings are a slice of something more profound, at least two things need to happen: Much bigger patient groups have to be compared, and prospective studies that start from scratch and measure into the future, not back into the past, need to be conducted.

And for those to happen, Intermountain needs to share—first, to conduct stronger retrospective studies, but as time goes on and more patients receive targeted therapies, the sharing of outcomes going forward will be important, too.

Sawyers said small sample sizes will hamstring researchers who don’t share. For example, he cited the “long tail” problem of cancer mutations. When tumors are sequenced, a small number of genes tend to show up with frequent mutations. (P53 is one, for example.) But a chart of all mutations will show a scattering of genes with rare mutations—the “long tail” of the chart, that is. “It never hits zero. The more patients you sequence, the longer the tail gets, and you keep discovering very rare mutations,” said Sawyers.

Some of those rare mutations could be “oncogenes”—that is, the ones in the driver’s seat making the tumor grow—but without the pooled data it will be harder to know. It’s not just looking at more patients with the same type of cancer. Powerful analyses across all cancers might reveal that a mutation known in one type of cancer is showing up in patients across the continent with other types of cancer.

And thanks to new types of clinical trials, patients can be grouped and tested based on mutation profile, not on the tissue or organ where the cancer is growing. “If it’s a single case at one institution, no one will change clinical practice based on that case,” said Sawyers. “But if four patients at four institutions responded to a drug, perhaps you can announce it to the world.”

Lillian Siu thinks a lot about cancer trial design. She’s an oncologist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, and she told me … Next Page »

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The Extraordinary Vision of Larry Bock

Tue, 06/23/2015 - 01:01

When Larry Bock gave the commencement speech for the University of California, Berkeley, College of Chemistry in 2007, he was introduced as “a very unusual man” who had founded, co-founded, or provided early stage financing for more than 48 startups, mostly in the life sciences.

What went unsaid in the moment was that Bock started or funded most of those companies after he was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, an inherited form of macular degeneration that causes progressive loss of vision. Stagardt patients gradually lose their visual acuity as photoreceptor cells die in the central portion of the retina. Bock retained some vision at the time of his diagnosis. Still, he was just 29 and legally blind.

His startup acumen, though, remained unimpaired.

As a 20-something venture capital associate, he already had made early stage investments in Gen-Probe (now Hologic), Idec Pharmaceuticals (merged with Biogen in 2003), and Gensia (now part of Teva Pharmaceutical). Bock also was a co-founder of Athena Neurosciences (which became a key part of Elan Pharmaceuticals), Aurora Biosciences, and Vertex (NASDAQ: VRTX), which acquired Aurora in 2001.

Those investments created an impressive line of innovative technologies, not to mention the aggregate value of the companies involved. Gen-Probe developed nucleic acid-based diagnostic probes used to test for sexually transmitted diseases and in other clinical tests. Aurora pioneered high-throughput screening technology for drug discovery, and originated work on the groundbreaking cystic fibrosis drug ivacaftor (Kalydeco), which Vertex brought to market in 2012.

Following his diagnosis, Bock was determined to continue working as if he had no disability.

“Larry is one the most creative entrepreneurs in biotech in the past 30 years,” Arch Venture Partners co-founder Bob Nelsen, who invested with Bock in Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN) and many other ventures, wrote in an email to Xconomy. “He never lets his past successes cloud his determination, and everything he does, he does like it is the only deal on the planet—100 percent commitment, all the time. He deals with the cards that he is dealt.”

As Bock’s eyesight deteriorated through the 1990s and into the new millennium, he sought tools to assist the visually impaired.

He began carrying a Kurzweil text-to-speech reading machine on business trips. The machine scans a document and reads the text aloud in a computer-synthesized voice. Bock said the first one he purchased cost $8,000, was as big as a tabletop, and weighed 40 pounds. It took two to three minutes to read a page, Bock said, but he was able to get his reading done.

Bock also continued to drive, using a cumbersome digital contraption that included telescopic lenses and made him look like “a cyborg.”

Bock said he finally gave up his driver’s license about 10 years ago, but his determination remained unwavering. “I would say that disability didn’t affect him one iota,” said Kevin Kinsella, who founded the San Diego life sciences firm Avalon Ventures, where Bock was a general partner for nearly nine years.

And Bock continued to run the table.

He served as the founding CEO of San Diego’s Neurocrine Biosciences (NASDAQ: NBIX), and as a co-founder of Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), the world’s premier gene-sequencing equipment company; Caliper Life Sciences, the Hopkinton, MA, pioneer of microfluidic lab-on-a-chip technology; Onyx Pharmaceuticals, which won FDA approval for sorafenib (Nexavar) for certain liver, kidney, and thyroid cancers (and was acquired by Amgen in 2013 for $10.4 billion);  and Nanosys, a nanotechnology company in Milpitas, CA, that specializes in LCD displays based on quantum dots. (He has been a San Diego Xconomist since 2008.)

Bock also created the inaugural San Diego Science Festival in 2009. He split with the local festival following a power struggle with UC San Diego over control of the wildly successful event. But Bock then founded the USA Science & Engineering Festival the following year in Washington D.C., where it attracted nearly 1 million people in its first year.

Now 55, Bock continues to keenly feel the loss of his mobility and independence. He said he often needs help to perform simple tasks, such as adjusting a thermostat, finding a hotel bathroom, or dealing with an anti-spam captcha script. Unable to read a restaurant menu, Bock said he often orders the same meal over and over.

“When you are low-vision or blind, you are very dependent on others,” he said. “When I’m walking in New York City, I really have to strain to be able to see a [street] sign.”

His continuing quest for technologies to help him work—and just get around—recently led him to join forces with a couple of San Diego entrepreneurs to form, an online startup developing new visual services for the blind. Bock estimates that Aira is the 20th startup he has become involved with as a founder or co-founder and seed-stage investor. But this time it’s far more personal.

Last year, Bock met Suman Kanuganti, an Indian-born engineer, and Yuja Chang, when they were demonstrating a prototype of their innovation for the blind at a “Dining in the Dark” fund-raising dinner in downtown San Diego for the Foundation Fighting Blindness.

“They were showcasing what they were working on—and it was what I had been looking for forever,” said Bock, who was an … Next Page »

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Where the Red Book Meets the Unicorn

Mon, 06/22/2015 - 13:15

Mike Stonebraker – my partner, friend, and winner of the 2014 A.M. Turing Award – has been on the cutting edge of modern database research, development, and deployment for over 40 years. The cutting edge … for 40 years.

Mike was the main architect, starting in the 1970s through the 1990s, of many systems that had a huge impact on the database world – including Ingres, Postgres, and Mariposa, founding startup companies for each. He was famously at the center of the debate of object-oriented database systems vs. relational database systems and the ultimate evolution of object-relational mapping tools such as the popular Hibernate.

Over the past 10+ years, Mike and I have worked together as partners on big data technologies and companies like Vertica, VoltDB, Paradigm4, and Tamr, at the intersection of commercial and academic research:


  • Paper published at VLDB Conference, Trondheim, Norway, 2005 (link here)
  • C-Store declared public domain
  • C-Store Code published (website)
  • Vertica founded with fresh code base


  • Paper published at VLDB Conference, Auckland, New Zealand, 2008 (link here)
  • H-Store declared public domain
  • Code published on public website
  • VoltDB started as open source skunkworks within Vertica, with fresh code base
  • VoltDB spun out of Vertica into separate company


  • Paper published at 23rd International Conference, SSDBM 2011, Portland, OR (link here)
  • Code published on public website
  • Started SciDB open source project
  • Paradigm4 started based on SciDB open source project


  • Paper published at 6th Biennial Conference on Innovative Data Systems Research (CIDR ’13), Asilomar, California (link here)
  • Data Tamer declared public domain
  • A copy of the code was put on GitHub
  • Tamr founded and fresh code base implemented

All this was accomplished through a combination of fearlessness of failure, open and transparent communication of ideas … and willingness to change. It was fueled by an approach that has never been more relevant for database researchers as we all move boldly into the big data era: Do your work at the intersection of the academic and commercial worlds.

In academia, you have the opportunity to question assumptions free of the shackles of corporate politics, short-term requirements, and non-technical middle managers <insert favorite “Office Space” reference here>. In the meantime, the commercial world today remains the only place to test and prove database systems theory at scale.

This academic-meets-commercial approach isn’t specific to Mike, database research, or even the IT domain. In Cambridge, Bob Langer runs the largest biomedical engineering lab in the world at MIT and is recognized as the most cited engineer in history. He also has 1,000+ patents that have been licensed/sublicensed to more than 300 companies. Bob’s prodigious academic and commercial accomplishments are inextricably linked. He has spent decades deriving the absolute best from what each sector has to offer – testing some of most advanced biomedical theory at real-world scale. Bob, like Mike, is a true rock star on both the academic and commercial sides of his field.

Database research, though, is particularly suited for this academic/commercial intersection. In fact, the only way to do really (really) large-scale research is on the commercial side. Database icons (and close friends) Jim Gray, Dave DeWitt, and Mike understood the value of developing and testing with massive commercial datasets long before the term “big data” was coined – and built their amazing careers on academic and commercial foundations.

Mike has pursued this academic/commercial course since the 1970s, aggressively testing database theory in commercial systems on real applications. He had some radical hypotheses that could be proved through research. But he knew he had to have the data to really know they were true. That’s the advantage of big, hairy, real-world commercial data.

This is even more true today – in the big data era – where extreme-scale research into new and important database systems is happening at companies like LinkedIn, Google, Twitter, and Facebook.

My advice to all next-gen computer scientists/software engineers interested in big data research and development is simple: follow the example of Gray, DeWitt, Stonebraker, and others before you dive too deeply into anything.

They learned critical lessons along the way at the intersection of their academic and commercial work. In fact, there has been a lot of “reinventing the proverbial wheel” with respect to distributed database systems over the past 15 years. Five-plus years ago, for example, Mike said MapReduce wasn’t going to amount to much (reference here). It wasn’t the most popular opinion at the time. But eventually people started to think that he might have been right (reference here). IMHO, Mike and Dave Dewitt were pretty much dead on. Many of these new database infrastructure projects are going to come to terms with the fact that, eventually, they are all wrestling with building a database system of one sort or another. And that the lessons learned in database systems over the past 40 years – relational, distributed, object-oriented, federated, or otherwise – are useful to avoid wasting time and money (see here about the MySQL sharding trend of the 2000s and why it was a huge distraction).

They also weren’t afraid to get things wrong. Like QUEL, a relational database query language associated with Ingres, which Mike promoted as superior to SQL in the 1980s. IBM and Oracle led the move toward SQL, largely stranding QUEL. Mike moved on. And so did we, better off in the end for the chances taken, as always, in the interest of advancing ideas, challenging assumptions, and figuring out what really works.

Right or wrong, Mike and his cohort not only learned their lessons, but they also unabashedly committed them to posterity in papers and other publications. In Mike’s case, the “Red Book” (Readings in Database Systems), co-edited with Joseph Hellerstein, first published in 1988 and updated ever since. Think of it as a lifetime of lessons learned at the intersection of academia and commerce by Mike and his peers on database management system theory and practice.

If you have any desire to research or deploy database systems seriously, the Red Book is required reading – preferably before you finish undergrad. Do it, and you might avoid the same hard lessons that people have been learning (brutally in some cases) over and over again in commercial settings about distributed database systems at scale.

In other words, much of what you need to know about large-scale distributed database systems is all right there at your fingertips. Ignore it at your own risk.

Congrats to Mike on the acceptance of his Turing Award, and thanks to him for all his contributions, his partnership, friendship, and his willingness to never take himself too seriously.

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25 Years in Biotech

Mon, 06/22/2015 - 07:00

That is a sobering headline to write.

Twenty-five years ago at this time of year, I was graduating from college with no job, a pretty choppy economy, a bunch of student loans, a resume that included things like a summer research internship catching salamanders, and an aspiration to “get into biotech.”

I look back and think how naive I was and find it a bit stunning. Recall, this was both pre-internet and pre-email. I believe I wrote to BIO for information on the industry. At the time, I had absolutely no connections, but I figured out that there was a lot going on in Boston. It took me a couple of months to realize that new college graduates weren’t being hired long-distance, so I finally took the plunge and moved to Boston with no job or money (a daunting prospect), at which point I started reading the want ads in the Sunday Boston Globe. That’s how I got started.

In 1990, Epogen (epoetin alfa) had just been approved. Biogen was 12 years old, Regeneron was two, and Vertex was one. The first antibody therapeutic, OKT3, had been approved in 1986, but it was murine (yes, an antibody from a mouse, not from a human). Figuring out how to “humanize” antibodies—which was essential to enabling them to really work as therapeutics—was still a work in progress. It wasn’t yet 1992, the year that the European Community member states were to form a single market. Europe was still fragmented, but everyone was preparing for that to change and trying to guess what it would be like. BIO hadn’t even held its first convention yet; that wouldn’t happen until 1993.

Some things feel very different from 1990

“Pharma” and “biotech” have grown much closer since then. Today there are many people who have worked in both environments—something that was rare 25 years ago. A multitude of collaborations and alliances have built further understanding and relationships across companies, but they have also created a co-dependency in the industry. The maturing of the contract research industry in parallel has created both more flexibility for pharma operating models and additional possibilities for biotechs to access capabilities and capacity without building everything internally. In 1990, pharma and biotech were two very different groups and were considered separate industries. Today, it’s really a deeply interconnected continuum.

Someone always used to compare the entire market cap of the biotech industry to the market cap of Merck, which was the leader of the pharmaceutical industry. I don’t know exactly at what point the line was crossed, but it’s been some time. Today, we generally don’t think in those terms, at least in part because there are now individual biotech companies that have a larger market cap than Merck. I’m not sure exactly what that signifies, but at the very least it points to maturity—not just of those companies, but of the industry. To compare a whole industry to one other company is to trivialize the industry in some way—and that doesn’t happen any longer.

In 1990, one of the diseases that was of intense focus for the industry was HIV and the complications of AIDS, such as opportunistic infections. It is a terrible, heartbreaking disease, and at that time it was still daunting scientifically. It is incredible to see what spectacular progress there has been. What was once a nearly hopeless situation for those patients is now so much more manageable, even though many challenges remain.

Recurring themes or “plus ca change, plus le meme:”

Pipeline gaps in pharma. It’s just really, really hard to have a pipeline produce on a predictable basis. We’re not making widgets.

Financing “windows.” In 1990, the crash of 1987 wasn’t that far in the past, funding was still tight, and the economy was not strong. No one knew the 1991-92 window was just about to bust open. Later, fallout from the internet bubble of 1999-2000 was quickly followed by the genomics bubble of 2000-2001. The meltdown of 2008-2010 was unprecedented, however, as is the tremendous degree of capital availability in the past two to three years.

Partnering ‘trends’ oscillating between early stage and late stage alliances being dominant. Every time I read an article describing the current trend (whatever it may be), it feels like déjà vu all over again.

While far from comprehensive, there are a number of “then & now” contrasts that come to mind when I compare 1990 to 2015.


Then: Human Genome Project just recently started. Had not yet found the genes for Huntington’s disease or BRCA1. First gene therapy trial just starting.

Now: We’re nearly at the “$1,000 genome” and redefining many diseases based on their genetics rather than symptoms. But our view of genetics has gotten more complex as we’ve come to appreciate the critical roles of epigenetics and the many dimensions of the biology of RNA.


Then: Barely on anyone’s radar. In a survey of factors influencing product pricing, this came in last (Biotech 90: Into the Next Decade; Burrill/Ernst & Young).

Now: Has become a dominant theme for the industry and society in general.


Then: Fast-track process had just recently been established.

Now: Over the years, we have seen many initiatives that create new ways to engage with the agency, especially for serious diseases.


Then: Lots.

Now: Lots.


Then: Small molecules still ruled and large pharma focused almost entirely on this modality. Proteins were still very tricky, and because they couldn’t be taken orally, they were viewed as niche. Humanization technologies for antibodies being developed, but still imperfect.

Now: The list is a lot bigger: Small molecules. Proteins (particularly mAbs). Oligonucleotides (antisense & myriad forms of RNA). Gene therapy & genome editing. Nanoparticles. Large pharma companies have become nearly modality-agnostic, and focus on matching molecule to biological goal.


There were only two pharma corporate VCs—JJDC (Johnson & Johnson Development Corporation) and SR One (GlaxoSmithKline)—and limited partners in regular venture funds were traditional private equity investors, not corporations.

NowAlmost all pharma companies have a venture fund and/or they’re a limited partner (LP) in one or more independent venture fund. Many (most?) independent venture funds have one or more pharma LPs.


Empty lots up and down Sidney Street. The Necco factory on Lansdowne Street was still making candy—you could smell sugar in the air when you walked by.

Now: Too many construction sites to count, and there’s still not enough space. Many more coffee shops.


Legal Sea Foods & the food trucks at MIT for Kendall Square. Middle East for Central. No Starbucks (they were still in Seattle).

Now: Grateful to have many more options! And glad the old standards are still there.

Twenty-five years later, I’m still in Boston, and I did “get into biotech.” I’ve definitely learned a few things along the way, one of the most important being that the learning curve is endless and relentlessly steep in this industry.

Just think where we’ll be in 2040.

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